Human rights advocate documents journey of Central Americans to U.S. border

Much debate over immigration in the United States focuses on the southern border with Mexico.

For people in the United States, the story might appear to start there. But for migrants from Central America, the U.S. border comes after a long traverse of Mexico.

A local human rights advocate has been documenting their harrowing journey.

Irineo Mujica is a native of Mexico, and a longtime permanent resident of Minnesota. A few years ago, he began hearing stories in the immigrant community that concerned him. A woman from El Salvador said she had been raped multiple times on her journey through Mexico. Mujica, who had studied photography and considers himself a human-rights defender, decided to go to Mexico to see what the migrants were experiencing.

Irineo Mujica
Twin Cities photographer Irineo Mujica protesting in Puebla, Mexico in July 2010 after Mexican immigration authorities deleted images documenting their treatment of Central American migrants crossing Mexico.
Photo courtesy of Irineo Mujica

"I thought in a month I could just take pictures that I love to do. And it was a reality I had never imagined existed," Mujica said.

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He saw men, women and children crowded on top of freight trains, hungry and dehydrated in the scorching sun. Passing tree limbs could easily knock them off. Their legs could get pulled under as they tried to board moving trains. They were also preyed upon: raped, beaten, kidnapped. Mujica said the treatment of Central Americans is a shame Mexicans don't want to talk about.

"They call them 'the migrants that don't matter' — los migrantes que no importan," Mujica said.

The United Nations has reported on the "extreme vulnerability" of Central Americans on the transmigration route through Mexico. The UN noted "systemic violations of human rights and a wide-spread practice of abductions by members of various federal, state and municipal police forces."

Mujica witnessed that migrants were easy pickings for organized crime or violent raids by Mexican authorities.

"When the raids happen you see everyone just running. I was on top of a train and I was photographing how the migrants were being hunted," he said.

"They call them 'the migrants that don't matter' -- los migrantes que no importantes."

Mujica now works with human rights groups to try to educate migrants on the grave dangers they face when they attempt the journey. He would prefer they not try to cross Mexico at all, but he says they come blindly, desperate to escape the poverty in their home countries, mostly Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. On his laptop, he shows a video he shot of a 17-year-old girl recounting how two men, who identified themselves to her as Mexican immigration agents, ordered her to strip so they could search for drugs, and then raped her.

"We ask them 'do you want to go to the police?' And this woman says 'yes.' And then we follow the process," Mujica said. "Not that it matters, but at least the numbers are piling up and we have this account, because they never did anything about her."

The Mexican government says it is working on the problem.

Ana Luisa Fajer Flores, the Mexican consul in St. Paul, says in September 2012 Mexico implemented a new law that decriminalizes migration and, for the first time, catalogues the rights of migrants. The country is also restructuring the agency immigration agents work for, imposing strict standards of conduct to root out corruption.

Migrants crowd on top of freight trains. When Mexico-native Irineo Mujica heard stories in the immigrant community that concerned him, he decided to go to Mexico to see what the migrants were experiencing.
Photo courtesy of Irineo Mujica

"Most of the complaints that we get is because of these migratory officials that are on the border that are corrupt," Fajer Flores said. "That is one problem that has to be fixed. And zero tolerance for that."

Fajer Flores emphasizes that the larger solution rests with the United States, Mexico and Central American states working together on the economic forces driving the relentless pull to the north.

In the U.S., in the current debate over immigration reform, one concern with offering a path to citizenship to people who have entered the country illegally is that it will encourage more people to cross the border. Mujica said the migrants he sees are in survival mode. Only 15 percent who set out ever make it to the U.S. border. Mujia thinks any change in U.S. policy would be remote from their worlds.

"No, they don't even talk about that. Like, you don't have time. It is like a death trap," Mujica said. "You have to worry about the next city. You have to worry about what you have at home. You never hear them talk about immigration."

Calvary Lutheran Church will host an event 10 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday at 3901 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis, to raise funds to reopen a shelter to help migrants near Mexico City early next year.